The Weekly Planet: The Question That Haunts Climate Advocates

It’s not “Will Donald Trump win?”

A foreclosed house stands vacant and boarded up in Fort Myers, Florida, in this photo taken during the 2008 recession
The current moment in climate politics reminds many observers of 2008. (Bruce Gilden/Magnum)

Updated at 10:07 a.m. ET on October 28, 2020.

Every Tuesday morning, our lead climate reporter brings you the big ideas, expert analysis, and vital guidance that will help you flourish on a changing planet. Sign up to get The Weekly Planet, our guide to living through climate change, in your inbox.

Every so often, a moment comes along when progress suddenly feels inevitable.

A popular presidential candidate says that few crises “are more urgent than combatting climate change.” Major oil companies—led by BP—are planning for a less carbon-intensive future. About two out of three Americans say that climate change will shape how they vote.

Does all that sound exciting? I hope not. I’m describing the world in 2008, when Barack Obama took office promising that climate-change legislation would be one of his top priorities. But he never passed major climate legislation, even though Democrats held a majority in both houses of Congress for the first two years of his term.

That moment—more than any other—now haunts the activists, wonks, politicians, and philanthropists who seek to pass climate policy in the United States. As another Democratic candidate vows to make climate central to his agenda, they are asking: Is this time different?

This is one of the most concerning questions for the field—second only to “Will Donald Trump win?”

“I think that there are huge parallels between a potential first [Joe] Biden term and the first Obama term,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, the vice president for policy and strategy at the liberal polling firm Data for Progress, told me.

The economics of renewable energy drive the cost and feasibility of climate policy—and they have dramatically shifted for the better. But the Democratic Party still faces the same coalition issues that doomed its effort more than a decade ago. If unions cannot swallow a climate bill without a certain policy, and some members of the environmental left cannot live with that policy, then both must learn to compromise—or the effort is guaranteed to self-destruct.

First, the consequences of climate change are more obvious than they were in the late 2000s. The five hottest years on record are the past five. But far and away the biggest shift from 2008 to 2020: Renewables are very cheap. Last week, the International Energy Agency said that solar energy is now the “cheapest electricity in history.” In some places, it’s cheaper to add new solar to the power grid than it is to keep running old fossil-fuel plants.

“People at Goldman Sachs know that and are multiplying their allocations accordingly,” Daniel Firger, the managing director at Great Circle Capital Advisors, told me. “The smart money—and, increasingly, all the money—is on a climate transition.”

Politically, the biggest change since 2008 is that Washington’s traditionally powerful environmental groups—such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund—play a much smaller role in shaping climate policy than they used to.

Now insurgent activist groups such as the Sunrise Movement tend to drive the conversation. Separately, the energy scholars, political scientists, and advisers most likely to influence Biden’s policies come from groups that consider themselves more concerned about “climate” than the environment, per se. These new entrants, above all, see climate policy as another facet of economic policy.

But that’s where some of the biggest differences between 2008 and today end. The similarities may be more worrying.

Ten years ago, environmentalists attacked the Obama climate bill at a key moment. Today, Democratic allies could again find themselves split. Many unions need any climate bill to support both nuclear energy and carbon-capture technology, which removes climate pollutants from smokestacks or the ambient air, almost as an olive branch to union members who work in nuclear plants or fossil-fuel-intensive industries. Some groups on the old-fashioned environmental left, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, say that they cannot abide such proposals, because they amount to subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry.

The argument is settled from a scientific perspective: The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that the world can avoid catastrophic warming only by sucking carbon out of the air. But it remains unsettled politically.

Oddly, the factor that could prove most decisive to whether Democrats can pass a bill is whether the party’s leaders realize how much has changed since 2008. Will they understand, when writing a stimulus bill, that part of their job is to accelerate the economy’s move toward renewables?

This is what most worries Firger, who previously advised Mike Bloomberg’s climate philanthropy. “I am concerned that there are people in positions of power who aren’t keeping informed,” he said. “Look at Dianne Feinstein at the Supreme Court hearing—there are still so many people on the Hill who haven’t internalized” how the political imperatives of the moment have changed.

Look At This

Justin Bieber, covered in mud, wears a yellow hard hat and Dickie's overalls and grimaces toward the viewer.
Umg / BMI / umpg publishing / Warner Chappell

Oil companies are struggling. American fracking output has plunged this year; Exxon Mobil is laying off staff and cutting back on benefits to preserve its payout to investors. But has the broader culture realized that oil is in trouble?

I guess it has. Justin Bieber recently released his new music video, “Holy,” in which he stars as an out-of-work oil driller in Texas. It’s Bruce Springsteen’s The River meets … Daniel Yergin’s The Prize? Also, Chance the Rapper shows up, with no obvious role in the oil-worker narrative.

Vital Statistics

54 percent: the portion of likely voters who support former Vice President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate-focused recovery proposal, when told it would “create millions of jobs rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and transforming America into a clean energy economy,” according to a new survey of about 1,100 Americans by Data for Progress exclusively provided to The Weekly Planet.

34 percent: the portion of likely voters who agreed that “the government should not waste $2 trillion on politicians’ pet projects because it is wasteful government spending that will dramatically increase the national debt.”

48 percent: the portion of likely voters who agree with Biden’s proposal to shift the U.S. electricity grid to 100 percent clean energy by 2035.

39 percent: the portion of those who agree that “the government should keep our current system where we use coal, oil and natural gas, as well as clean energy sources, to generate electricity based on what keeps energy prices low.”

12 percent: the portion of voters who aren’t sure.

Someone Else’s Weather

Thomas Hoepker / Magnum

In Washington, D.C., where I live, fall foliage is approaching its peak. Every week, I’m hoping to feature a weather photo from a reader or professional in this part of the newsletter, because the climate is someone else’s weather. If you would like to submit, please email

3 Surprising Things

1. Judge Amy Coney Barrett repeatedly declined to affirm that climate change exists during her confirmation heating.

Senator Kamala Harris pressed her on this question, and after the judge affirmed that she accepted both that COVID-19 is infectious and that smoking causes cancer, she called the existence of climate change “a very contentious matter of public debate.”

Granted, Harris is running for vice president and is looking for viral moments. And granted, a Republican-nominated judge is going to have conservative views. This is still weird!

Mainstream conservative judges affirm the reality of climate change all the time—there’s not a debate over it!—and they have done so for years. I’ve heard Justice Brett Kavanaugh affirm that climate change is real from the bench (though he was a mere judge at the time). He does not seem to believe that the Environmental Protection Agency can do much about climate change, but that is, in his mind at least, a separate legal question. He had no problem affirming it.

2. There was some talk about the federal budget deficit this week, because it reached a record high of $3.1 trillion.

Okay, look! Don’t stop reading. This is actually interesting.

Deficit-hawk arguments usually boil down to the same idea: A high deficit ties the future’s hand behind its back. A high deficit eats into savings and salaries, it reduces the government’s ability to respond to emergencies, and it saddles future Americans (who are usually described euphemistically as “our children”) with a debt they cannot pay down.

What I find astonishing about these complaints is that every alleged harm of runaway deficits is an actual harm of runaway climate change.

I don’t mean that figuratively. A broken climate will cause precisely the harms alleged by a high deficit—it will reduce our children’s standard of living, it will eat into savings that would otherwise go toward investment, and it will reduce the country’s ability to respond to a crisis.

In fact, it already has: This year’s climate-intensified California wildfires made it much harder for the state to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. And while the costs of a high deficit depend on impossible-to-predict political and economic configurations, the cost of a broken climate is a physical fact. It is thermodynamically assured.

Should a Democrat ever occupy the White House again, he or she may have to prioritize bipartisan cooperation on one of the two goals—lowering the deficit or addressing climate change. I know which one I would choose.

3. Finally, some reasonably good news: For decades, the starting assumption of climate policy has been that there’s a trade-off between cutting carbon pollution and stimulating economic growth. Quietly, and rather strikingly, the International Monetary Fund broke with that idea this month.* It now argues there is no such trade-off, the climate-finance expert Kate Mackenzie writes.

Thanks for reading. Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here.

* This newsletter misattributed a report on climate-friendly stimulus to the World Economic Forum. The report was published by the International Monetary Fund.